Last election cycle, virtually every city council candidate knew enough about Seattle transit to say they supported “better east-west connections.” You don’t have to ride the bus very much to know that getting across town can be a slog. Promising to fix it turns out to be a popular idea.
At a series of open houses last week, SDOT, in partnership with King County Metro, previewed Level 1 concepts for one of the most important of the east-west routes in the city: the 44. The route, which runs from Ballard to the University District, had been initially proposed as RapidRide but then de-scoped to “multimodal improvements” when the Move Seattle Levy was reset.
While the RapidRide amenities and branding are nice to have, the most important things are the speed and mobility improvements. With these initial concepts – which are drafts for discussion purposes – SDOT is trying to get creative in making east-west transit faster.
An SDOT-commissioned study examined at the route in exquisite detail. Using automatic vehicle location (AVL) and automatic passenger count (APC) data, they were able to pinpoint precisely where the slowdowns were happening and how many people would be affected by them. They also split the analysis into AM, midday, and PM segments (fun fact: the 44 has higher ridership midday than the AM — college kids don’t sign up for early classes!). Finally, they subtracted the time the door was open from the total dwell time to understand how long the buses were stuck at the stop after loading and unloading passengers.
The current end-to-end eastbound journey takes 23 minutes off-peak, but 37-39 minutes during peak. Westbound is a similar 25 minutes and 42 minutes, respectively. Delays occur mostly where the route intersects major N-S thoroughfares: at 15th NW, at SR-99, and at I-5. Most of the U-District portion is also congested.
The early concepts propose streamlining the right-of-way to inhibit north-south traffic conflicts. For example, left turns might be restricted or streets turned one-way to prevent movement on to or off of the corridor, similar to Denny Way (which carries a similar amount of car traffic). Bus-only lanes could be added Eastbound approaching 15th Ave NW, Aurora, and 15th Ave NE.
SDOT also suggests possibly removing the bus stops at I-5. When buses are restructured after Lynnwood link opens (right about when these improvements will launch), it’s not clear how important the transfer at I-5 and 45th will be, so this could work out.
Finally off-board payment is a possibility, even sans RapidRide branding.
One hopes SDOT swings for the fences with this project. Crosstown routes are always slow, which is one reason the Transit Master Plan called for aggressive bus priority. Unlike some projects, the primary obstacles to success are political, not financial. This is an excellent, low-cost opportunity for the Mayor and her team to show the transit leadership that they are so eager to take credit for. Everyone says they want better east-west connections when it’s campaign time. Here’s a chance to make it happen.
SDOT expects construction to wrap up in mid-2023. All the gory details are available at the project website including a full list of improvements and display boards from the open house showing the draft concepts.
Update: clarified Metro’s partnership